This article, on student mentoring, ties together “My Thoughts on Autism in Education,” and “Autism in Society: Moving Towards A Greater Acceptance of Kids on the Spectrum,” while adding additional thoughts to the ongoing discussion.
For the aspiring student, a key goal is to find at least one mentor, who can guide, teach, and inspire them.
So, to begin, what exactly is a mentor?
A mentor is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.”
I believe that the above definition can be expanded further: in every interpersonal interaction that occurs, there exists the potential to teach another person something, even if just for a few moments. We learn, and in turn, teach (without ever knowing it), in adapting to the myriad of situations that we face daily. Mentoring, then, is something everyone does, perhaps not strictly by definition, but in a broader sense.
Thinking more conventionally in terms of what is considered “mentoring” (one-on-one teaching/learning) today, what makes an effective mentor? There are many angles one could take to answer this question but – in my opinion – the most important attribute that an effective mentor possesses is a genuine enjoyment for facilitating learning. They seek to do it selflessly, with only the goal of inspiring the next generation of students. Mentors practice what they teach by dressing and acting the part of a consummate professional during work hours; and, they also live it 24/7 in their personal lives. In doing so, they model the behaviors that they are trying to pass on to their students.
Some of my recent discussions on mentoring (with one of my mentors, a former How The Weatherworks intern and current PhD student) have revolved around the idea that mentorship goes beyond the facilitation of learning. Based on my own experiences, I heartily agree that it is a perspective, an attitude, as much as it is active action. It was suggested in the course of our discussions that mentors must live what they teach; and, in doing so, they must regularly reflect on their actions as they relate to what they are attempting to teach.
Through self-reflection, the mentor typically “finds the essential aspects” of themselves. In striving to be a good mentor, they look for “the way” to be the best mentor they can be. The mentor grows him/herself, while finding those qualities he/she is seeking to exemplify in the student.
In this process of self-growth, mentors are recognizing their own imperfections as humans, and trying to find ways to empathize with and relate to the student. Empathy – being able to relate to the student on their level – is critical in the mentoring relationship.
Mentors recognize that attitudes and beliefs are caught, rather than taught. Thus, the greatest lessons a mentor can teach their students come through their own actions, and from leading by example.
Further, mentorship is a mutual journey, one experienced by the teacher as well as the student. In teaching, mentors learn, and, in learning, mentees teach.
Mentoring is a near symbiotic relationship: the actions of one individual affect the other, quite directly in many cases – especially where internships and other one-on-one interaction opportunities are concerned.
With the explosion of social media in the last six years or so, mentors and others in learning facilitation roles have used social media as a conduit to provide an enhanced learning experience for students.
In this ever-evolving digital age, the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and SMS text messaging are all effective tools to facilitate learning. Further supporting mentoring are an array of video chat solutions such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime. These allow for real-time face-to-face communication, taking the idea of long-distance mentoring to a whole new level. I, for example, have been in a long-distance, online-based internship for nearly five years. With the utilization of the above (and other) tools, the amount of mentoring I have received has exceeded anything I could have hoped for.
In turn, I have begun a long-distance meteorology/professional development mentoring program with three students (two of whom attended a weather camp in southwest Florida in 2014). I have made extensive use of various communication channels (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, FaceTime, text messaging) to facilitate learning opportunities for them. Both as a mentee and a mentor, I can vouch for the usefulness of these social media services to further mentor/mentee interaction and growth.
I recognize that there must be a distinct line drawn in this mentoring process between being a friend to the student and being a professional mentor. However, I would argue that not allowing the friend/professional gap to overlap to some degree would only cripple mentoring efforts from the start. Therefore, with utmost professionalism in mind, it is important for both student and mentor that a close relationship develops. This ensures that more efficient and effective communication channels for mutual learning can evolve.
In recent years, I have developed more of a colleague-like relationship with a few of my mentors thanks to my continued professionally-geared pursuits and experiences. When I started out, it was more formal, teacher/apprentice-like. With one mentor, I can discuss leadership and organizational management, and with others, conversational topics range from programming to education.
Having one mentor is great; but, having two or three (or more) who are really high-caliber is even better.
While all of the above applies to any student, it is important to recognize that the need for mentoring is even greater for students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
For a student with ASD characteristics, social issues can run rampant. ASD individuals are often shunned by peers because of the inherent, largely uncontrollable social behavior inhibitors present in autism. Mentors can step in and help to alleviate some of these problems by providing ways in which the student can communicate. Through social interaction provided in the mentor/mentee relationship, the ASD individual can, in many cases, effectively improve their social skill set.
In opening a line of communication centered around the student’s interest, the mentor can become a positive influence in the student’s life. This includes giving the student someone to talk to, providing the student with a focusing point they can use as a source of motivation, and reinforcing positive social and other behaviors.
Students who are on the autism spectrum need inspiration, and an iron-willed attitude, focus, and sense of determination to overcome and/or improve upon the situations they face on a daily basis but, with help, it is possible that self-improvement can be seen in many cases. Mentors can be major players in facilitating this improvement.
There are a number of programs and initiatives in existence which have a focus on mentoring. These include Boys and Girls Clubs, various Boy and Girl Scout programs, 4-H, weather camps for middle and high school students, and a college meteorology mentoring program run by the American Meteorological Society’s Board for Private Sector Meteorology, to name just a few. The National Weather Association also has a mentor portal (for members only), which provides a listing of professionals who serve the meteorological community as mentors.
In closing, I leave you with the thought that mentorship is multifaceted. Yes, it is a physical experience, due to one-on-one social and other interactions. However, it also involves a mindset and an attitude. It is an opportunity to give back, learn from one another, and most importantly, inspire the next generation of students. Thus, I highly recommend that students find a mentor – regardless of their career path, regardless of any disability they may have.